This post was brought on by two separate incidences happening only days apart from each other. One, a short, public Twitter exchange between Marisa Roffman from GiveMeMyRemote and me about our common wish for more official fan merchandizing, made me think. The second one, a private conversation adding up to the thesis ‘The images I create don’t belong to me.’, prompted me to write. So, in the following some thoughts on art, fan art and fan merchandizing from someone who seems involve in all three or just one or two?
It seems an unlikely place to start, but let’s go all the way back to da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. We are in Italy in the 16th century, the time of High Renaissance. Art was a profession you started to learn as an apprentice like any other craft. Masters of the craft owed large workshops that easily employed a dozen or more painters, who realized their master’s drafts. And the commissions to win were given by the church or the courts – altars, frescos, ceilings, tapestry, portraits. Well, wallpaper only started to gain popularity among the emerging gentry and somehow the picture of your nubile daughter had to be shown around on the market though the invention of photography was yet centuries away. Art still had a purpose; I mean a clearly defined purpose, of course. L’art pour l’art came an epoch later.
Back to the three famous artists. Michelangelo wasn’t fond of da Vinci, who was about 20 years his senior; but he disliked the eight years younger Raphael even more. Raphael, son of a court painter at the small, but artistically significant court of Urbino, mingled effortless in the highest circles throughout his life. I guess he was an extrovert. His career seemed to be effortless and he had a knack for absorbing popular influences into his style. So much so, that Michelangelo accused him of plagiarism. And hell yeah, Raphael’s work in the Vatican shows clear signs of influence of what Michelangelo did at the same time in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Yet, all three of them are still known for their own, distinguishable art & styles a couple of hundred years later.
Paul Gauguin, 19th century leading French Post-Impressionist artist – just unfortunately not recognized as such at the time of his life – and fierce friend of equally non-appreciated Vincent van Gogh, said “Art is either plagiarism or revolution.” But whatever way you go – plagiarism or revolution – art is always one thing, a chronicle of its time.
Our world might be completely different from that of Raphael or Gauguin. We are post the invention of wallpaper, photography, video, Photoshop and Draw Something. And to become an artist today you need to be either wealthy, born with connections in the business or simply crazy (though it helps in the last category to appreciate Ramen Noodles and odd jobs). Art as an expression is the capture of a moment through the mastery of a craft. And as such it is always influenced by the world around it. It is the combination of observational skills, ability and creativity.
You can try to argue with me, but by all means I think what I create is art. I work quite traditionally with pencils, brushes, ink and paint. What I create is unique and recognizable in its style as mine. And what I choose to draw and paint about is what I see around me and like – TV, stories and human beings, because they are beautiful, diverse and never cease to amaze, inspire and scare me – more often than not all of it at the same time. TV and fandom are a boiled down and condensed image of our society. The worse reality gets, the more we hide in fiction and the glamorous world around it, while fiction draws from reality. So, translating this dynamics into art is like capturing a moment.
So, I am a fan and I create art. Does this mean I create fanart? Grey things and elephants. Art and fanart overlap in parts. Fanart is creative work based on creative work, done by someone other than the original artist. The term is usually used to refer to creative work derived from visual media though it can also be based on books. And most people who hear the term will automatically think of photoshopped photos, photo collages and/or You Tube.
Photoshop – great tool (that would highly overtax the Smithsonian door-stopper I owe as a laptop), but seldom the tool to create something truly original, especially when the basis you start from is a photo/video snippet you didn’t create in the first place. Therefore, most fanart is considered derivative work, what places the control of copyright with the owner of the original work and its production, display and distribution is only allowed under the fair use exemption (that isUScopyright law).
And then we jump the thin line and look at e.g. the Marilyn Diptych or things of Shephard Fairey – street art, pop art, in some ways definitely fanart. I mean these are visual bonbons in a world of floating cabbage beds, filled laundry baskets and alphabetically ordered Alphabet Soups. Nobody would argue here that the right to control the display and reproduction of this work lies with the artist. Why? Because the creative work added to the original image makes it a comment of its time beyond simple reproduction in a newly arranged way. The distinction might not be easy and the decision often is attached to the name a particular artist has or has not yet established. LeSigh. The actual status of some work often falls into a gray area. And I fight for my right to live in the shades of gray, knowing that my images are mine.
Last but not least, let’s talk fan merchandises – the pretty things fans want to owe to display their attachment to a certain fan-base. To work as fan merchandise an article has to pick up colors, logos, well-known images or quotes in a clear fashion. Like team jerseys of sports teams. What would be the worth of a merchandize, if the viewer is left to guess what the item stands for?
Fans demand such things because it is a human desire to belong to a group and show it (as much as it is a human desire to stand out in this group again, but that’s another story). As with any other desire, they will turn to whoever can fulfill it. And they will ask for ever new stuff – re: the desire to stand out in the group they want to belong to – as long as the visual needs are fulfilled. And frankly, the visual needs of a fan and the visual needs of an artist are mostly two different things. Ask my Tumblr account. Art with a deeper meaning is generally speaking reserved for a selected few, while things from the dark shades of fanart gray move masses. I said it before and I say it again: It’s a lot about what we are trained and used to see and what doesn’t match our viewing habits. While using well-known images as a bridge to art as Pop Art does, many choose not to cross the bridge.
As an artist one is caught between fulfilling the demand (even Ramen noodles have a price) and realizing ones visions, what means walking the thin line between gray and black sometimes. Yes, I do this as well. Yet, I try always to keep true to my own set of standards as the artist, I am and want to be. It would however, be much easier to draw the distinction between art, fanart in a stricter sense, and merchandising article if there were more official merchandise.